There are more and more studies that agree that dark, low-sugar, dairy-free chocolate has health benefits—provided we eat only a few ounces a day in combination with a high protein-low carbohydrate diet.
While there are several health benefits to cacao, the one that we are drawn to, is the way cacao stimulates our brain neurotransmitters to lift our mood. The plant Theobroma cacao, comes from Central and South America and it is believed that the Aztecs ground the cacao beans, mixed the powder with tobacco to provide a stimulating ‘cigarette’. Cacao is now cultivated for its seeds, popularly known as cocoa beans, which are roasted, husked and ground to make cocoa powder and chocolate.
However most of the manufactured ‘tasty’ milk chocolates that dominate our supermarket shelves contain limited amounts of cacao. Rather it is the sweetness of the sugar (lactose from the milk and fructose from table sugar or high fructose corn syrup) that gives us the desire to eat them. While the sugars give us a mental hit for some minutes, they also quickly drop us down, whereas the bitter cacao lasts longer with its stimulating effect. Eating typical milk chocolate and white chocolate will not improve your health. To get the health benefits from eating chocolate you need to eat good quality, dark chocolate—with at least 85% cacao (as this has the lowest fructose content).
Fructose will reverse any positive benefits of chocolate, as it breaks down into a variety of waste products including uric acid which drives up blood pressure by inhibiting the production of nitric oxide. It also promotes insulin resistance, which is at the driver of most chronic disease—so beware the amount of fructose in chocolate.
Reducing risk of stroke, heart disease
Research indicates cacao powder has health benefits because specific types of bacteria in your intestines ferment cacao (when the environment in the intestines is low in carbohydrate residue) and produce anti-inflammatory compounds that benefit your health by buffering inflammation in the body including cardiovascular tissue. In the long-term this means better quality of life and a reduction in the risk of stroke, and coronary heart disease.
A stroke is similar to a heart attack, but occurs when the blood supply to the brain becomes blocked or reduced, as opposed to the blood supply being blocked to the heart in a heart attack. Nitric oxide relaxes blood vessels and lowers blood pressure. Dark chocolate is known to assist with nitric oxide metabolism as well as producing a flavonoid compound called epicatechin which assists people following a stroke by increasing the cellular signals in the brain that shield nerve cells from damage. Unfortunately cheap milk chocolate of many large commercial brands has the lowest flavanol content, while cacao powder and dark chocolate have the highest.
The closer cacao is to its natural raw state, the higher its nutritional value. So when choosing a chocolate, you will be getting health value for money by selecting a dark chocolate that is has higher cacao and lower sugar content. When selecting an authentic chocolate the only ingredients you should expect to see are: cocoa, cocoa butter, and sugar (no soy emulsifier, vegetable oil or palm oil). In some instances vanilla is added which is fine, and whey or milk solids—if it’s milk chocolate. In general however, the darker the chocolate the more bitter it will be. The cacao flavanols make the chocolate bitter, so most manufacturers remove them. The flavanols however, are the source of cacao’s health benefits. To counteract the bitterness, most chocolate is sweetened, so it’s a matter of balancing nutritional benefit with palatability. So, read your labels carefully. Honey is recommended when you are making home-made chocolates but it is generally too expensive to use in commercial chocolates. You can make chocolate sweetened with stevia and honey, which is preferable to cane sugar, fructose, high fructose corn syrup or artificial sweeteners (see below for how to make your own chocolate).
Chocolate helps keep you up, not lift you up
Blending cacao powder, unsalted butter, hot water and a small amount of honey creates a delicious hot chocolate drink that gives regional changes in cerebral blood flow and overall increased blood flow to most of the brain for up to three hours (as assessed by functional magnetic resonance imaging). However when you are stressed and highly strung, chocolate can cause insomnia because cacao contains caffeine. The amount of caffeine is dependent on the drying and fermenting processes to develop the colour and flavour of cacao. Thus, the caffeine content may be high in some varieties of chocolate, particularly the pure chocolates which are not filled out with soy emulsifier. Chocolate is a condiment to use when you are not feeling stressed—but many people need the chocolate ‘hit’ to feel a little better about their stressed situation, and this often just makes things worse!
Understand that not all chocolate is created equal, and it is useful in many cases to keep you ‘up’ rather than using it to give you a ‘lift’ when you are down. It also pays to remember, the high caloric load of commercially available chocolate (about 500 kcal/100 g) can cause weight gain if you eat a third of a block of chocolate every day or if you combine this amount daily with a high carbohydrate diet such as a vegetarian diet. Unfortunately promoting chocolate as having health benefits does not automatically mean ‘more is better’!
You can get satisfying goodness by drinking a frothy mug of hot buttered cocoa or some good quality dark chocolate, like Willies Cacao. Like a good cup of tea or coffee, the ‘black gold’ of South America is something most of us value, from day to day.
You can also have a go at making your own chocolate—it’s really easy and once you get the hang of it you can adjust the sweetener to your own liking and add in any additional flavours (like peppermint, orange, chilli or add-in nuts, seeds etc).
Here is Jo Roy’s chocolate recipe:
Jo’s Chocolate recipe
200 grams cacao butter (available from most health food shops)
1/4 cup honey
1/4 raw cacao powder
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
pinch of Himalayan salt
Any flavours that you want to add in
(Approximate quantities – I’m more of a whack-it-in type chef!)
Grate or ‘shave’ the lumps of cacao butter. Melt the cacao butter in a bain-marie (bowl over pan of gently boiling water). Make sure NO water mixes with the cocoa butter, and ensure your bowl, is clean and dry before you use it—otherwise this may cause the chocolate to separate.
Once the cacao butter is melted (liquid) gently whisk through the honey, until that is melted also.
Remove the bowl from the heat and stir through the cacao powder, vanilla extract and salt.
Add in any flavours here that you want.
Pour or spoon into moulds. You can use a baking sheet (with baking paper on) or a plate to let it set. Place in the fridge (or freezer if you are hungry!) and wait for it to set.